Sara Groves Invible Empires as reviewed in The Phantom TollboothSara Groves once again looks at the tension between the spirit and the flesh and creates beautiful pop music for grown-ups....

Invisible Empires
Sara Groves
Fair Trade Services / Sponge Records
11 tracks / 41 minutes

Invisible Empires might sound like the title of a new video game or maybe George Lucas' next idea for another Star Wars prequel (please, George – no!), but it happens to be the title of Sara Groves' new album. C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce observed that Heaven is more 'real' than Earth, and Sara has remarked, about the title of this project, "We're not building something substantial that will last, so we build and operate in this invisible world." The insightful Groves is (and has been) one of the most reliable sources of high quality introspective, spiritual pop music for grown-ups since her 2000 debut, Conversations - and her creative well is far from running dry.

Invisible Empires once again features Sara bringing songs about the frailty of this existence, the tensions between the spirit and the flesh, and a world spinning on a course that seems to be veering away from God. Still, this is essentially pop music, and even though there's an underlying world-weariness about injustice on songs like the gospel-inspired "Eyes on the Prize" (which references the Civil Rights movement, Paul and Silas, and the International Justice Mission), the music is rhythmic and hooky, often showing a generational Beatles / classic rock influence with a dose of Joni Mitchell on the side.

Mostly piano-driven ("Open My Hands" is the only track to start with the sound of an acoustic guitar), the intimacy of the bass, guitar, piano, and percussion line-up brings a nice human spin to the proceedings with a tastefully minimal string section keeping the production warm. Producer Steve Hindalong, himself a fine percussionist (The Choir), keeps a light hand on the sound, keeping the arrangements organic without losing the classic-pop/rock attitude on songs like "I'll Wait," and the wonderful, observational, "Scientists in Japan."

Groves is a fine singer with impeccable timing and simple, effective phrasing, but it's the vulnerability of her delivery that brings the humanity of the songs to the forefront. In "Open My Hands," when she sings, "I believe in a fountain that will never run dry, though I've thirsted and didn't have enough / Thirst isn't a measure of His faithfulness," you sense the essence of trust in her delivery – and when she concludes, "I am nodding my head in emphatic 'yes' to all that You have for me," the line is infused with surrender. These are songs born from life, which is why I think 'pop music for grown-ups' is an apt description – this is where the drama, angst and rage reconcile with every day life. The world is, indeed, spinning faster and faster, causing Groves to sing, in "Finite," these words: "This frenetic fascination is really driving me insane ...anybody feel that?"

In a day when every other artist is playing with auto-tuning and sampled sounds Sara Groves has once again delivered an album of music for, and by, human beings. Having more than a decade of fine music behind her, Groves continues to observe the world and listen for the still, small Voice, to tell us what she's learned.

Yeah, Sara – we feel that.

-Bert Saraco

4 Tocks as rated by The Phantom Tollbooth